Afghanistan: Weighing Risk and Reward
Written by Joanna Schaus
Bio: Neal and Anna Hampton served in the Middle East and have over twenty-seven years of ministry experience traveling in over seventy countries. Their humanitarian work took them to war-torn Afghanistan where they raised their three children living out their calling in a hostile culture. Neal is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute. He is a practitioner and trainer in the area of shepherd leadership and life development and has worked with numerous field leaders across multiple sectors in the for-profit, non-profit, para-church, and educational worlds. Anna holds a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Bethel University and a Doctor of Religious Studies from Trinity Theological Seminary. She is a Bible teacher and conference speaker at international women’s events. Neal and Anna frequently travel to the greater Middle East where they continue to serve cross-cultural workers in closed countries.
I conversed with Neal and Anna Hampton at their home in a small town in the Midwestern part of the US. With the fire crackling and the snow gathering on the window, it was difficult to imagine them living in the dusty, hot, desert climate of Afghanistan.
As they recounted their decade’s worth of experiences living in a war zone, it was evident their heart for Afghan people was what drove them to pack up their belongings and move their family to the Middle East eighteen years ago. “We knew the risk we were taking, but we felt compelled to go—we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.” Anna recounted.
Q: Tell me, why did you decide to move to Afghanistan?
Anna: A couple of years before moving to Afghanistan, God began changing my heart and I felt called to ministry with Muslims. I felt drawn to overseas cross-cultural work with Afghans, the whole world did not seem to care about Afghanistan, the crisis there, or what was happening. We moved to Kabul in 2000 while the Taliban were in power. [During that time] things were shifting in the country, as new NGO workers moved in, and the humanitarian community was growing at a rapid pace. We did not realize our own ego in going to Afghanistan until after we moved. We never would have said moving to the Middle East was a selfish decision, but our motivation to face danger and adventure played into our reasons behind going. I wanted to be a significant person, and when Neal and I realized we had nothing to report back to people in the States, the Lord gave us the message on Jeremiah. Our calling is to obey God in what we are supposed to do, and it’s not our job or place to force anyone into the Kingdom. I went to Afghanistan in 2000 with all of the passion and idealism of my youth to a country that had been forgotten by the world.
We went to provide humanitarian aid and help rebuild a country shattered by three decades of war. The day in September 2000 we landed in Kabul changed my life forever. I had never in all my travels around the world seen the level of suffering and utter destruction anywhere else. The horror described in Lamentations was in living color in the heat, dust, stench, poverty, and desperation of Kabul under Taliban rule. I naively went thinking my understanding of suffering was enough but had no clue what risking my life for Christ would mean. Over the years, I came to realize that suffering asks different questions than risk asks. Risking demands deepening discernment of the Spirit’s leading in each situation to know what God is asking of us, even when the impact of the risk costs us personally and impacts our family.
One day I was walking to the bazaar, experiencing the stares and harassment that women experience on the street, and realized that my daily experience was a taste, just a tiny taste, of those who are marginalized, oppressed, voiceless, those with their backs against the wall. “What do the teachings of Jesus have to say to those who stand at a moment in human history with their backs against the wall…the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” We take Howard Thurman’s quote and also apply it to those who are persecuted and suffer because they follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, especially those oppressed in some of the most hostile nations of the world. How do we respond to walking with Christ in the onslaught of pain, grief, loss, and suffering that risking our lives and suffering for him brings? “God does not offer any glib answers to the agonizing problem of human grief. Instead, God freely chooses to suffer from those who suffer” (Kelly & Nelson). And when we suffer and enter into the sufferings of others, we enter into God’s suffering and are transformed into his likeness.
Yes, we had many, many happy times in Afghanistan and made many friends with other aid workers and with many Afghan friends. We developed a love for the country and the people. And we also learned to suffer with them and are deeply grieved and horrified by the immorality of what is happening this week. Despite that, God is sovereign. We will trust him and we will do what we can to help Afghan Christ-followers stand strong and firm in the coming persecution. I long ago decided to faithfully follow Jesus and there will never be any turning back from what He asks me to do, even if it costs me everything and takes my life. He is worth it.
Neal: When we moved to Kabul there was an ongoing conflict between the Taliban and the northern alliance. Anna and I wanted to be in a part of the world with the least-reached people, and we knew the Pashtuns were the largest least-reached people group on the planet, as they’re militantly ethnocentric and more “untrusting” of other cultures. Some of our call to Afghanistan was selfish. We wanted to be significant people, and we wanted to see lasting changes in the world because of our sacrifice. There were multiple moments during our time on the field when we questioned ourselves and our work. We were not seeing changes in the community around us. We asked ourselves why we were even overseas, to begin with. Even though it was difficult, it was the type of environment where Anna and I grew in our awareness of community and caring for each other. Lifting each other in our faith, we recognized the impact around us. When we treated each other with care and love, the local population noticed. We had Afghans tell us that they were attracted to our savior because of how we treated one another in our suffering.
Q: What does Afghanistan have that no other place has?
Anna: We miss our spiritual community from believers around the world. With the simplicity of life, Afghans understand the raw reality of life, in a way that people in the west cannot understand.
Neal: I miss the connection that Afghans have to the environment. They have this saying in Afghanistan, “may Kabul be without gold, but not without snow.” The meaning behind that phrase is that you live relying on what the earth produces, the crops you are able to get, and the water you can drink. The idea is that life is simple and the snow on the mountains brings water and hope. In Afghanistan, there is much more awareness and dependence on the earth. I miss the poetry of the language, Farsi has a beauty to it and I miss hearing it. I miss the hospitality and genuine connection with people. In Afghanistan, you are dependent on relationships with people. if you see someone you know, you ask them about their family, their health, their job, and the weather.
Q: What is your perspective on Seasonal Ministry?
Anna: If by seasonal ministry we mean short-term cross-cultural service, we have to define our terms. I do believe God calls people for a term or season, but that should not be a substitute for a full-time ministry career, and some organizations have reduced the power of career service by replacing it with temporary efforts.
Neal: Most of it comes down to our ministry outlook and the work we’re going to do. We have to ask ourselves, what is our purpose in going? Is it just for the adventure or experience? Or is it responding to a sacred invitation to express genuine love and compassion to others?
Q: What is one story from the field where you saw God at work?
Neal: There were very few places for fellow believers to meet safely in Kabul, but luckily, there was a guest house restaurant that was set up by a foreigner which became a place people could share about their lives more openly. One group of believers, meeting at the guest house, asked me to come and give a sermon to them and I agreed. After I was finished speaking, a young Afghan man named Azeem quickly came up to me. I said “Salam Alaikum” (peace be upon you) as I introduced myself to him. In Afghanistan, the way you greet a person is culturally stipulated. So, I found it noteworthy that Azeem did not do the customary cultural greetings. Instead, he responded with, “Alaikum salam Neal, I’ve had the same dream three nights in a row.” I could tell he was very intent on sharing with me, and I was aware that God speaking to people through dreams had been a pattern in Afghanistan, but I’d never had that experience before.
I asked him, “would you like to tell me about it?” He eagerly sat down at my table and began sharing his dream. “I was in a very dark location and saw people crying out around me in pain and agony. There were snakes all over them, biting them. Off in the distance, in a light place, an older man was telling us he could help us.” When Azeem said this, I asked him, “do you think this man was a prophet?” He said somehow he knew he was a prophet, and continued telling his story. “A lion came to me, and I knew I was supposed to get on the lion’s back.” I asked him, “did you get on his back?” Azeem responded with, “no, I was too afraid and my dream ended when a snake bit me. The second night, I had the same dream, and this time when the lion came I was more inclined to get on his back, but a snake bit me again and I woke up. By the third night, I did not hesitate, and immediately jumped on the lion’s back.”
I found myself fascinated listening to this dream. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Azeem was so desperate to tell me his story, and incredibly articulate. What happened next? I questioned further. Azeem continued, “the lion took me to the light place, and now I was standing next to the prophet. The prophet told me, “you need to go to Neal, he will tell you what your dream means.” I sat there stunned. I had no idea what his dream meant, or even why I was a part of it. The only thing that came to my mind was John chapter three, which talked about the story of Nicodemus. I had no supernatural revelation of interpretation of his dream, but we opened our bibles and my eyes immediately went to a verse I had highlighted, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” John 3:14. I shared verse fourteen with Azeem, and he immediately started crying. “Jesus is the lion. He will take you from your dark place to a light place” I said.
Anna: Shortly before Azeem shared his dream with Neal, there was one day Neal came home from work and he said, “I feel like God is asking us to be willing to stay in Afghanistan even if our ministry looks like Jeremiah’s for the next twenty years.” Jeremiah in scripture was a complete “failure” by human metrics, and Neal and I sat on our veranda and wept. We mourned because suffering did not seem like it would end anytime soon in Afghanistan. There were multiple problems we were facing that made us dissatisfied with where we were at, and after some time of returning to Kabul, we started begging God to give us a reason to leave. It’s difficult to describe living in a place with so much poverty and unrest, with constant suffering around you. We felt as if we could keep going and staying in Kabul because Azeem’s dream gave us hope that God was working.
Q: What were some of the risks you experienced living on the field?
Anna: Most of the time, we did not calculate the risks adequately. At that point in our work, we were not aware of the term, “a theology of risk,” so we did not always think through our decisions from a risk-based standpoint.
Neal: One example of a risk we experienced living on the field was within the first two months of moving to Afghanistan. I had not been paying much attention to our visa documents at that time, because I thought the admin department we were going with was handling more of the paperwork. We were naive to what life looked like overseas and being foreigners in this new country, we did not think we were in that much danger. When we arrived, one of our colleagues was put in jail because he overstayed his visa. A few weeks into moving, we got a call from our leadership informing us we were in the country illegally, that we’d overstayed our visa, and were liable for a month of jail time. We felt embarrassed knowing we had broken the law and were facing possible jail time as a result of our negligence. We knew going to jail was not the end of the world, but only two months into our move to Afghanistan it did not feel like a responsible adjustment.
Anna: Going to jail in Afghanistan was scary to think about because I was a new nursing mother with a baby. It was getting cold in Kabul, and the thought of being in prison with my baby boy gave me fear. I guess, we did not realize, being the naive Americans we were just how serious the situation could escalate to. Shortly after finding out we had overstayed our visa, we went to the Taliban visa office to find out if we were going to be put in jail. When we walked in, we immediately noticed the rows from floor to ceiling of three-ring-binder books documenting every foreigner in Kabul who has broken the law in one way or another, and we realized we were at the mercy of the Afghan officers. I kept praying that by some miracle we would not be put in jail.
Neal: When we went up to the visa officer, he asked us why we were in the country. I began explaining my work, and Anna shared that she was accompanying me as my wife. The officer looked at our little family, laughed a little, and then stamped our passports and we walked out. I will never forget the feeling of walking out of the office, knowing we did not deserve the grace we’d just been given. It gave us hope to continue pressing into our new life in Afghanistan, and I made sure never to let our passports expire again.
Anna: Through that experience, we learned to steward risk. Risk is not about simply going and trusting that God will take care of everything. Oftentimes, it’s about making calculated decisions, and still trusting that God is at work and He will continue to protect us. Even during the times, I felt afraid, I recognized that what the Lord was asking us to do was so little compared to what He’s already done. I continued to feel peace knowing that He was protecting us even when we did not feel safe.
Neal: The fact is, that sometimes God rescues us out of situations, so we do not have to face natural consequences for our actions. Having a theology of risk-taking means recognizing the price, and taking a step forward in courage.
Q: Do you have any encouragement for people in the field or wanting to go to the field?
Anna: We must remember that first and foremost we are on a lifetime journey of seeking Christ’s kingdom. Sometimes we put God in a box and think that we have to have complete clarity over the work we are doing, but that’s limiting God.
Neal: There’s history in the church regarding our vocation. I’m encouraged to know that God created each of us for a purpose, and we get the opportunity to participate in his family and the ways he made us. Unfortunately, there’s been a corruption of the great commission. It’s been associated with colonialism and nationalism which made our work overseas much harder. Sometimes in church’s we make our “life’s calling” hierarchical. We place people on a pedestal, thinking that if someone receives a specific call to a specific place, they’re somehow more spiritual or holy. If we are truly doing cross-cultural work with Jesus, there are things within our cultures that Christ would celebrate, but also things he would reprove of. In union with God, we can celebrate our differences with other cultures. There are things in this world that do not reach His mark. If we’re doing our ministry with Christ, it would be God-honoring and spiritually encouraging to join him in improving conditions where people are suffering, help people have food, better healthcare, and less division. I believe Christ would look at some situations in our world today and reprove them, calling them as injustice and as wrong. There’s plenty of injustice in the world, and we should also stand against those injustices. We should also remember that Christ would walk in our own culture and have the same response; calling out injustice and division. We cannot hold tightly to our hypocrisy and idolatry, being willing to call out injustice in other cultures, but not our own. People in church settings often define a “calling” as having to be to a certain place or people group, but Anna and I have tried not to limit God in our ministry style. For us, we focus on the unreached people in the world, who often reside in the most dangerous locations.
Q: What ultimately led you to leave Afghanistan?
Neal: The reason why we left Afghanistan is very complex. Essentially, the security in Kabul was becoming more of an issue and it became too dangerous for our family to go outside. There did not seem to be any end in sight for the lockdowns and the restrictions. We did not think it was going to be possible to continue raising our family in a healthy manner. We wanted to keep our children safe, and we began to recognize that they were about to enter into an important stage in their childhood development. Anna and I observed some of the other teenagers in the community, and how challenging it was for them to be given freedoms, while at the same time managing the risk associated with those freedoms.
Anna: We also had a sense that God was moving us along, but we did not know where he was leading. In the four years that Neal served in leadership, we felt drained emotionally, and being in a high-risk situation took a ton out of us. We slowly realized it did not feel like good stewardship to our calling to continue raising our family in a war zone.
Q: What kind of work are you doing now/how did Afghanistan prepare you for your work now?
Anna: Living in Afghanistan we realized that people who are in dangerous places working in challenging environments need meaningful shepherding.
Neal: Now we serve with a smaller organization providing pastoral care and counseling to people serving overseas. We know how difficult it can be to work in high-risk situations and we want to share our experiences and knowledge to help people who might be in a similar place that we once were.
Q: How can people be praying for Afghanistan as it transitions back to rule under the Taliban?
Pray for God’s light to shine. Twenty-five years ago, when the Taliban took over Kabul, many Afghans began to explore the teaching of our messiah. May they seek Him now. Pray for dreams. God commonly works through dreams among Afghans.
Pray for Christ-followers at risk. So many we tried to help escape were unable to. They are now trying to shelter in place until a way becomes available. Pray for rescue. We are coordinating a few remaining evac options.
Joanna is a traveling humanitarian photographer & storyteller capturing the stories of those she meets. She grew up in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Turkey for the majority of her childhood and early teen years. Currently, she travels frequently dedicating time to documenting her experiences through her lens and advocating for others to do the same.